Ethical Surplus

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Concept concerning how surplus value is extracted in Cognitive Capitalism, introduced originally by Maurizio Lazzarato.


Adam Arvidsson at

This is an excerpt from the introductory chapter of the Ethical Economy Book Project.

"Surplus value becomes increasingly based on surplus-community, or what Maurizio Lazzarato has termed an ‘ethical surplus’. What was once considered external to the cold and rational sphere of economic production and exchange, the ethically rich inter-subjectivity of private life and, or what Habermas called the ‘lifeworld’, has now become the core workshop of the contemporary cognitive capitalism.

The production of such an ethical surplus is generally not organized by a logic of monetary exchange value, but by an ethical logic of sharing and respect. Some actions are motivated by genuine altruism, by the desire to be or do something for others. Other acts are motivated by the quest for the recognition of others, whether this be one’s peers in a community or a friend or a loved one. (Other actions might be motivated by fear, fear of the loss of face or of standing within the community.) In any case, the ethical economy builds on a structure of ethical motivations: motivations that in some way take account of the other as a subject. The ethical economy is similar to some versions of traditional gift economies, as Barbrook has pointed out, only that the expectation of reciprocity is weaker and more indirect than what is generally the case in gift economies. Also the anthropological literature on gifts and gift economies tends to underline how gift-exchange serves to maintain and reproduce existing social bonds. The ethical economy, on the other hand is geared towards the production of new such bonds: towards the production of an ethical surplus." (